Run on Jon Lester? Not with Willson Contreras behind the plate

Willson Contreras has already matched his pickoff total from last season while throwing out 37 percent of would-be base stealers. Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire

CHICAGO -- Cincinnati Reds outfielder Scott Schebler had no chance.

It was the fourth inning at Wrigley Field, and he had just walked. He wanted to steal on Chicago Cubs pitcher John Lackey and catcher Willson Contreras, but he got a bad jump and stopped, caught in no man's land. Before he knew it, the ball was in first baseman Anthony Rizzo's glove, and Conteras had earned his fourth pickoff of the season.

"I would say he [Contreras] has a really good arm," Schebler said the next day. "The accuracy is more impressive than the arm strength. It kind of seems like he puts it right on the button. ... You take notice in your secondary [lead]. And you’re a little more aware. You’re heading back to the base a little quicker or at least turning your head."

It didn't work out for Schebler, but he shouldn't feel so bad. He isn't alone. Contreras already has matched his pickoff total from last season while throwing out 37 percent of would-be base stealers. That's about 10 points higher than the league average. And he's only getting better.

You won’t be surprised to learn the biggest beneficiary of the strong-armed catcher. It’s a certain lefty starter for the Cubs who gave up a major-league-high 44 stolen bases two seasons ago.

"His talent speaks for itself," Jon Lester said Monday. "Right now, you’re seeing the raw version. You’re going to have some mistakes and some over-aggressiveness to show off that arm. Kind of like a young Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez] back in the day. Just throw to throw.

"What’s impressive is how accurate he is. He has a longer arm swing than most catchers. He’s able to make up for that with the accuracy and strength of his arm."

Contreras is only part of the reason Lester has been tougher to steal against. Last year, with David Ross behind the plate, the opposition swiped only 28 bases off Lester, down from that league high of 44. As he takes the mound Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants, he’s on pace to give up just 21 steals, and he and Contreras have combined for a whopping 54 percent caught-stealing percentage. That’s 26 points better than the league average.

"I think Jon is doing a better job stepping off and/or going faster to the plate," Rizzo said. "And then there is Willy."

"Willy" has no fear. He’ll fire down to second even when it looks like the runner has the base stolen, or he’ll laser one to Rizzo from his knees. Contreras loves to back pick and is always ready to take a shot, especially when Lester pitches.

Contreras was asked if he is the main reason for the fewer stolen bases against the Cubs lefty.

"I would not take credit for it," he said with a smile. "I tell him before the game, 'You know they’re going to take a big lead on you, and you know they will start running, but if you have a good time to home plate, I’ll throw him out.' He’s been great stepping off the rubber. That’s been huge for us."

It’s driving the opposition crazy. Many prepare to play the Cubs by thinking that they can steal on Lester, but unlike a couple of seasons ago, few are figuring out how to do it right.

"Everyone is trying to crack the code," Schebler said. "You would think you would be able to steal a base off Lester, but obviously, it hasn’t been very easy."

Think about that statement compared to what players were saying -- and doing -- in 2015. It’s hard to steal on Lester?

"If I was a runner, I would take a secondary step without a huge lead because if you take a huge lead and then a secondary lead, you’re going to get picked off," Contreras said. "Or Jon is going to step off and throw your timing off."

It’s not always pretty with Contreras, as evidenced by his eight errors -- five of which have come via his strong arm. There was even one on a dropped third strike, which would have ended a game in St. Louis; luckily, the Cubs got the next batter. It’s safe to say Lester isn’t wrong in calling Conteras "raw."

"The difference between him and [David Ross] was maturity," Lester said. "Ross picked his spots. ... Willy is so young and eager that sometimes it gets him in trouble, but more times than not, it benefits us. It not only shortens those guys up on the bases, it doesn’t allow them to get the jumps they normally get."

The trickle-down effect when Contreras shows up on the scouting report for the opposition even extends around the diamond, according to Lester.

"It gives our infielders that extra split-second to turn that double play or do whatever," he said. "It shortens guys up. ... When guys are second-guessing themselves, it’s an advantage for us. It’s little things like that that make us all better."

By now, Rizzo knows most of the moments when Contreras might throw to him. The two have a pre-pitch signal for when runners are inching toward bigger leads or secondary leads. But in Schebler’s case, the play opened up for them only after a bad jump on a failed steal attempt. This is where Contreras is growing as a catcher. He saw Schebler hesitate and reacted.

"With a righty, I have the view and time to see if he’s too far off," Contreras said. "Rizzo is going to be ready all the time. ... With Lester, I’ll be ready to throw, and when Lester is pitching, I just ask him for a good pitch to the plate."

Lester's savvy on the mound combined with the emerging chemistry between Contreras and Rizzo is giving runners something to think about while also allowing the pitcher's pickoff issues to continue to fade into the background.

"With Lester on the mound, they do keep you honest," Schebler said. "That’s why it's worked so well for them -- because you know you can get that big lead, and then you have to get back to the base.

"You can take that massive primary lead, but it kind of defeats the purpose of a secondary. You have nowhere to go, and you want your momentum going the right way. ... It's working."